My dad loved the sound of his voice. “I was quite the crooner in my younger days,” he would remind my sister and me just before launching into an A cappella rendition of South of the Border. It was one of his favorite Frank Sinatra tunes. He seemed to know every Sinatra tune by heart and would sing-along whenever one came on the radio. In the early 1960s, that would be quite often.
My dad enjoyed talking to my older sister and me whenever he had us captive inside his beloved 1957 Karman Ghia. No subject was off-limits for my dad. He was very well-read and able to speak in-depth on any topic. With his left hand on the Ghia’s steering wheel, and his right hand resting on its wobbly gear shifter, he would regale us with tales of his days in a place he called “Camp,” whose official government name was the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center. My older sister always sat comfortably in the passenger seat. I squeezed myself into the rear “passenger area,” hunched over to keep my head from bumping against the cabin roof. The heat from the rear-mounted air-cooled engine kept my rump nice and warm. To be heard above the engine noise, my dad would wait until he got the Ghia into 4th gear before speaking to us. Once the coupe was at cruising speed, its engine humming, the stories would start.
“Did you know I sang in Camp? I was a singer in a swing band. The Tets Special Band.” I only recently found that I had not heard him correctly: I thought I heard “the Tets Special Band,” but it was actually “the Tets Bessho Band.” I found a photo of him singing to 442nd soldiers on leave at a pre-Thanksgiving USO social in 1943, a photo courtesy of the War Relocation Authority. My dad is standing, both hands on the microphone stand, while Tets accompanies him on the guitar.
My dad was a Nisei UCLA graduate and ranked 3rd in his Class of 1940 in the School of Economics. He even qualified for a scholarship to Harvard University. Still, the Dean responsible for administering the scholarship program, with whom he shared a mutual distrust and annoyance, advised him not to accept the offer. “Your family won’t be able to afford the living expenses, Jack. Rent, food, transportation. It adds up to a lot of money.”
“Piss on him,” was all my father ever said about it. Instead, after graduation, he found work selling new-fangled technology called “commercial refrigeration.” Most of his customers were Issei, first-generation Japanese, who sold fresh fruits and vegetables. They were amazed by the benefits this helpful new technology would bring to their business. They were just as amazed by the young Nisei salesman’s ability to speak perfect English while simultaneously mangling the Nihongo words and phrases he interspersed in his sales pitch.
My father took every opportunity to impress upon my sister and me the importance of clear enunciation. He would criticize and mock us if we ever came close to sounding otherwise. “You disrespect yourself and the person you’re speaking to if you try and sound like anyone other than yourself. You’re smart kids. There’s nothing to be ashamed of by sounding like it.”
So it was that my father happened to be driving me to my first day of school as a 4th grader at Coliseum Street Elementary School in the Crenshaw area. It was the late fall, 1960. Earlier that summer, we had moved from our tiny apartment near the USC campus into a larger 2-bedroom apartment just a block away from Holiday Bowl, a favorite hang-out for Asian-Americans. My father had finished his second year as a Breed Street Elementary School teacher in Boyle Heights, in East L.A. He had seen firsthand how new kids were treated on the playground – singled-out, teased, bullied, sometimes beaten. I am sure he was thinking of this when he turned to me and broke the silence between us.
“Jeff, if anyone calls you a Jap, you hit ’em.”
I was shocked. Had I heard my father correctly? I replayed his words in my mind. No mistake. That is what he said. The Ghia sat idling at the only signaled intersection between our apartment and Coliseum Street School, so engine noise was not a factor. We would be at the school in another minute or two. I did not speak.
“You understand me? If ANYONE calls you a Jap, you hit them.”
We made eye contact, and I nodded. When the light turned green, I steeled myself for my first day as the new kid. We parked the Ghia and headed for the school office to register. As we walked into the office and stepped to the front desk, I heard the excited voices of children outside on the playground beyond the office windows. I saw clusters of girls playing hopscotch, others tetherball, and groups of boys milled around in their cliques. A scuffle broke out when some boys began stomping on new shoes they spotted on one of their friends, typical horseplay as they waited for the bell that would signal the start of a new school year. I felt my anxiety level rachet up. I needed to pee.
Mrs. Stovall, the school secretary, greeted my dad. She was an amiable lady and greeted my father and me with genuine warmth. She explained the registration form that my dad had to complete, which only took a few seconds for him to fill out. He returned the form to Mrs. Stovall and peered past her to the windows that looked onto the play yard.
“Mrs. Stovall, may I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Mr. Furumura.”
“Are there any Orientals at this school?”
She heard the concern in his voice and glanced up at him and smiled. “Oh, Mr. Furumura, Coliseum Street School is 65% Oriental!”
My dad’s worry and concern for me evaporated in that instant. But that first week, I got into three separate fights after school, each with a different boy. Not because any of them called me a Jap, but because he had commanded me to hit anyone who disrespected me. To my 9-year-old ears, “Fat Kid,” “Pudgy,” and “Fatso” were all equivalent to that racial epithet. (Admittedly, I was overweight. My own Auntie Suzanne used to call me “Butterball.” There was never malice or hate in her tone of voice. It was a term of endearment she would say whenever she saw me. She would ask, “How’s my little Butterball, Jeffie?” I never once thought of hitting Auntie Suzanne, thank goodness.)
What my father said to me that morning has stayed with me throughout my entire life. Days after my 18th birthday, I got arrested for “felony possession of narcotics” – which is what California law called holding three joints inside of a Marlboro hard-pack in December 1968. The police processed me at L.A. County Jail, the big house. As a felon, I was assigned a cell to myself, alongside the cells of others who I assumed had committed much more serious felonies. A guy who called himself “Big John,” who inexplicably had roaming privileges on the concrete walkway, or “freeway,” outside the jail cells on my block, took notice of me. He squatted in front of my cell and invited me to a game of Tonk – a street poker game popular at the time – for a quarter a point. Our conversation was terse.
“What you in for?”
“Possession.” I lowered my voice a full octave for effect.
“Shit – you gonna be in here a long time.”
I asked what he was in for – and I think he said armed robbery. He’d been inside L.A. County for eight months.
Then he said, “How come you talk so sweet to me?”
I knew instantly where this would go and threw the cards I held at his face. “F*ck you, you f*ckin’ a**hole! Get the f*ck outta here.” We settled the game. He owed me $2, which he paid in dollar bill “balls” the size of the chickpeas. Big John threw those at me. I repeated in disgust, “Get the f*ck outta here.” He left as I began to unroll the two chickpeas – and found them made from a single bill torn in half. I cursed at myself for trusting him. That would not happen again. Not inside here. I decided then that I would not show anyone respect. F*ck them all. Lucky for me, I was released on Writ of Habeus Corpus before the weekend was over. Who knows what would have happened had I been there another day?
There was the time a carload of high school kids threw oranges at me – oranges! – from their passing car. I was out for a walk with our golden retriever, Buffy. We were on the sidewalk, facing on-coming traffic, on a busy boulevard in Sunland, a small town at the San Fernando Valley’s east end. My wife and I had just bought our first home there, a townhouse, on the recommendation of my brother-in-law. The oranges whizzed past my face and slammed into the landscaped slope next to me. I heard them yell, “F* ckin’ Chink!” I yelled back what has since become my all-time favorite anti-racist retort, “F*ck you, you ignorant corn-fed, peckerwood, redneck m*-f*s!” As fast as their car was moving, I doubt they heard me.
Sunland seemed to be full of racist jerks. I remember crossing Sunland Boulevard with Buffy to get to the park on the other side of the street, and a fireman sitting in the rear of an idling hook-and-ladder yelled at me. “Hey, Gook – don’t forget to pick up your dog’s shit.” I could not believe a fireman was yelling at me like that. I held up my poop-bags in one hand – and flipped him off with the other. “I’m not a Gook – you ignorant shithead!”
At this point, you probably think that I have become more racist than my tormentors. But I was only reflecting the racist hatred that I felt directed at me. It is what my father had told me to do. Okay, perhaps there were instances where proportionality was way off-kilter. For example, a Black panhandler once asked me for money as I returned to my car from a gas station cashier in Dominguez Hills. I told him, sorry, I was a little short myself that day. He went on a loud racist tirade directed at me that began, “You goddamn Chink m*-f*…” I am sure there was more, but I had already stopped listening. I opened the passenger door of my car, retrieved an 8” Bowie knife that I kept in the glove compartment and turned around, and ran straight at him. The chase only lasted a few steps after it became apparent he was faster on his feet than I was.
I stopped and realized, okay, maybe I did overreact. I reminded myself of the Steve Martin character in Carl Reiner’s film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Whenever Steve Martin hears the two words, Cleaning Woman, he lapses into an uncontrollable rage of silliness. To me, Jap, and all the other racist equivalents directed at me, have become the spark that sets my anger afire.
Several years into our marriage, we had our first child, a boy. Now I was the father. A confluence of personal and professional reasons persuaded my wife and me and our young son to relocate to O’ahu. That was in 1990. We have never looked back.
In Hawaii, we hold white folks in general disdain. Not all white folks, mind you, only those with no respect for the local culture. Who act without consideration or compassion toward others. Those folks are shocked into humility when they discover that the higher status of white privilege they enjoy on the Mainland is absent here. Insensitive white folks like that are referred to derisively as haole, or more accurately, stupid haole.
I recall one incident where I was in my car behind a rusted-out pick-up truck in a parking lot near one of my favorite restaurants, looking for an empty stall. The pick-up driver spied a car pulling out, came to a stop and flipped on his left turn blinker to signal his intention. As the car pulled away, a bright red convertible followed close behind and swooped into the empty stall. The pick-up driver just shook his head, turned off his blinker, and slowly pulled forward. Luckily for both of us, two adjacent parking stalls became available. As I got out of my car, the pick-up driver’s young son hopped down, turned to his father, and asked, “Daddy, are there any smart haoles?”
Watching the recent spate of racist verbal attacks against my Asian-Americans sisters and brothers on the Mainland makes my blood boil. We are tired of being seen as forever foreign by benign ignoramuses. I still fly into a rage when verbally attacked by racist clowns as a Chink, Gook, Slope-head, Zipper-head, Slant-eyed Yellow Bastard, or that most horrible slight, a Jap.
To my Asian-American compatriots in search of an appropriate response to a racist verbal attack, please feel free to hurl one of the following aphorisms back into the face of your tormentor:
“You dumb-a* sh*t-for-brains m*-f*.”
Or my personal favorite, “You ignorant corn-fed redneck peckerwood m*-f*.”
Lately, I have decided the simplest and most accurate way to label these idiots is the local phrase of disdain, Stupid Haole.
Remember the words of my dad: If anyone calls you a Jap, you hit ’em. Stand up against AAPI Hate.